Saxo Bank: The Carbon Fist of the Peloton

It can often be unclear which team is “the best”. Do you count stage wins? Overall victories? Team classifications? Each one of these questions will yield a different result, which is why I am limiting my criteria. I wanted to find the most feared team in the peloton, the one that has the power to do it all in the grand tours. And so I present to you, Saxo Bank, the greatest grand tour team in the modern peloton.

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Saxo Bank's 2009 Tour de France squad

I decided upon Saxo Bank because they have one of the most multi-faceted teams in the ProTour, with GC threat Andy Schleck, time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara, super domestique Fränk Schelck, and breakaway specialist Jens Voight. With this mix of riders Saxo Bank has found the ultimate balance between power and leadership, with a defined leader (Fränk Schleck) and a defined GC rider (Andy Schleck). The only thing that this team lacks is a sprinter that can spin with the likes of Tyler Farrar and Mark Cavendish. Yet no one can even compete with the Manx Missile these days, so I’m willing to overlook this fact.

To illustrate what I mean by the “Carbon Fist”, I’d like to take you through the average Tour de France for the Belgian outfit.

Fabian Cancellara at the 2009 Tour de Suisse

The race will start with a prologue or opening time trial, not long, perhaps 15km. Andy Schleck will post a decent time, behind the TT specialists but still easily among the other GC favorites. Fränk Schelck and Jens Voight will put up slower times, but neither is known for the time trialing ability. And then Swiss road and time trial champion Fabian Cancellara will destroy the course. He will take the yellow jersey and keep it for the next week as the sprinters take their fair share of stage wins.

Next comes a medium mountains stage, or perhaps a flat stage with windy conditions. Jens Voight will make his way into a breakaway, and hold on for most of the stage, unleashing attack after attack until he has dropped every other rider. This has happened for many grand tours, yet the German failed to do so this year following a horrible crash on Stage 16 of this year’s Tour de France:

Voigt made a full recovery and finished out his season at the Tour of Missori. He has recently stated that he would like to race the TdF again next year.

Following this Saxo Bank stage win, the team will remain at ease until the high mountains. This is where the true power of the team truly shows. Fränk Schelck more than earned his title of “super-domestique” at this year’s Tour de France, laying it down all for the GC hopes of younger brother Andy, who won the white jersey (best rider under-26 rider) for the second straight year. The duo work together extremely well in the mountain stages, and arguably no other pair works as well in tandem as the Schlecks do. To thank his older brother, Andy Schleck allowed Fränk Schelck to ride away for the win after a grueling Stage 17 (the stage after Voigt’s crash).

Fränk Schleck rides away for the win as brother Andy shares in the victory

Heroic acts like these have become common for the Schlecks, who placed second and fifth in this year’s Tour. They will hope to continue their work, yet they will need more than brotherly love to overcome Alberto Contador next year. Andy Schleck is among the top climbers in the world, but this has done little to aid his time trialing. He often loses valuable chunks of times to the GC contenders who can also time trial, such as Contador and Armstrong. If the Shlecks want to take the top step of the podium, Andy will have to improve his times against the clock.

So what does this leave Saxo Bank with? A rider (or two) on the podium, a few stage wins, and the ability to win in almost any situation. Saxo may not have achieved the highest palmares, but they are certainly with its reach.

Top Three Reasons Contador Wants Out!

Contador and Boonen in Curaçao. I had to work this in here somewhere...

As we all know, Alberto Contador will likely ride for Astana once again in 2010. Despite months of rumors and hearsay, no one was able to land “El Pistolero” and his contract bound him to another year with the Kazakh outfit. So, without further ado, here are the top three reason’s Alberto Contador wants to leave Astana.

3. Rider Support

Contador pulling away from the Shleck Brothers and teammate Gregory Rast on Stage 19 of the Tour de France

Alberto Contador is likely the world’s greatest stage racer at this time, with four grand tour wins in three years. However one man cannot win a race alone. Behind every great victory is even greater pain and suffering in the ranks of the domestiques, who lay down kilometer after kilometer on the front to protect the likes of the GC contenders. Look at Contador’s victories and you will see has had great support riders among his team.

In the 2010 season, all this will change; look at the list of Astana riders missing from next year’s roster and you will find the likes of Gregory Rast, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, and Lance Armstrong. Each one of these men (perhaps not Armstrong) was integral to Contador’s victories at some point or another. Next year Contador will have very little support, and it will likely be only the fellow compatriots he can assemble and whoever the Kazakh Cycling Federation has to offer (i.e. no one). The difference between Contador and likely tour rival Andy Shleck is that Shleck will have a star-studded support squad. Contador will have a skeleton of a team.

The "Team Faded" kit at the 2009 Giro

2. Financial Situation

Astana is owned by the Kazakh Cycling Federation, a body whose sole existence was to better their star Alexander Vinokourov. Following the doping scandal, they had very little talent to offer. With no inflow of revenue, the teams financial woes grew until they culminated at the 2009 Giro d’Italia.

Astana had not payed several riders their salaries (although not the bigger names like Contador, Armstrong or Lepiheimer), and on Stage 8 the team debuted a new kit. All the sponsor logos of the comapanies that had not payed the team  were faded out, leaving only the sponsors not caught in the financial spat, such as Trek, SRAM, Bontrager, and Livestrong. Publicity stunt though it was, it did raise questions as to the team’s financial security.

The team’s UCI license has yet to be confirmed on account of this, and these problems will likely wear on until Astana can find a more stable platform. Although Contador may not be in it for just the money, it’s certainly hard to win a grand tour with just pennies in your bib shorts.

1. Alexander Vinokourov

Vino's Back...

Vino's Back...

Astana was founded on this Kazakhstani phenom when the team was first assembled in 2007. Before joining Astana Vino’ had achieved several victories with T-Mobile and Liberty Seguros-Würth (the team which Astana was born from), the highlight being an overall victory at the 2006 Vuelta a España.

In the 2007 Tour de France Vino had several stage victories, but little success in the overall classification, having fallen and injured both knees in a crash in the first week. Following a victory on the Stage 15, Vinokourov’s A and B samples tested positive for homologous blood doping. Vino was ejected from the Tour de France (which team mate Contador would later win), and banned from cycling for two years. That ban ended in July of this year, he returned to the sport at this year’s Vuelta.

Despite winning the yellow jersey, Astana’s reputation was stained by the doping scandal that ensued. The team was not invited back for the 2008 edition of the race, leaving Contador unable to defend his victory. In recent news, Contador has demanded a written clause in his contract stating that Vino will be left off the Tour roster in future years…

Team Profile: Cervélo Test Team

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The Cervélo Test Team at the Stage 4 Team Time Trial in the Tour de France

The Cervélo Test Team will start the 2010 season in a place similar to the beginning of last year. On one side of the team is Thor Hushovd, world-class sprinter and Tour de France green jersey winner; on the other is Carlos Sastre, an aging champion (Sastre will turn 35 next year) and Tour de France winner. Although these end-caps remain, the rest of the team’s roster has changed since last year.

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Gerrans atop Stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia

Thus far, Cervélo Test Team has only lost one rider to another team: Simon Gerrans. The Australian climber has had victories in all three grand tours, but was left off the Cervélo roster for this year’s Tour de France, despite  stage victories in the 2008 edition of the race and in this year’s Giro d’Italia. According to Cervélo Test Team, the team felt that Gerrans would not benefit a roster which was built around Sastre and Hushovd. Despite this disappointment, Gerrans went on to win a stage at this year’s Vuelta a España, and helped carry fellow countrymen Cadel Evans to the Worlds title. For the 2010 season Gerrans will be riding for the newly created Team Sky, which is still waiting on its UCI ProTour license confirmation.

One rider that is sure to be back for next year is Heinrich Haussler, a powerful rider who has found success in both spring classics and grand tour stage. The 25 year old German-Australian had a strong season this year, including an emotional Tour de France Victory and a heart-breaking second place at Milan-Sanremo, where he was out-kicked by supers-printer Mark Cavendish in the closing 150m.

Haussler crossed the line in tears and first place at the 13th stage of this year's Tour de France

Haussler finds himself will find himself split between two roles next season, having served as both a leadout man for Thor Hushovd and Carlos Sastre’s protector in the same grand tour. Haussler obvious has the legs to pull off some impressive victories, yet his full potential has not been fully unleashed. Haussler must show his true talent in the spring classics next year if he wants to shine within the star-studded Cervélo Test Team.

Turning towards the sprinters of the team, Thor Hushovd will have some company at the line come next year. Dutch sprinter Theo Bos has signed with Cervélo Test Team, and will likely serve as Hushovd’s primary lead out man in the 2010 season. Bos was originally recognized as a great track sprinter early in his career, setting the world record in the Flying 200, and winning the World Championship in the sprint, keirin, and time trial. The Dutchman came under fire for a questionable move in this year’s Tour of Turkey. Different sides have different stories, so here is the video:

Although Bos came under a lot of fire for this move, there were ultimately very few consequences. Hopefully he can make amends with the cycling community and have a successful 2010 campaign with a new kit on his back.

Cervélo’s grand tour leader will again be veteran Carlos Sastre. Sastre had a disappointing Tour de France this year, finishing 17th overall with no stage wins. Although the Spaniard won the yellow jersey in 2008, the field was missing several vital parts, including 2007 winner Alberto Contador (Astana was not invited) and seven time winner Lance Armstrong (“retired”). Sastre will likely have the fire power for only stage wins in the coming grand tours, but he certainly should not be counted out entirely.

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A victorious Sastre conquers Mt. Vesuvio at stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia

Tour of California

The Amgen Tour of California will be held in May for the first time next year

As teams begin to layout their 2010 racing schedules, several squads are faced with a decision they have not had to make in years prior. Starting next year,the Amgen Tour of California wil be held during the month of May, overlapping with the Italian grand tour, the Giro d’Italia. Tour organizers say that the move from  February to March was influenced by the harsh weather riders had experienced in the past few years, when the race was held in February. This year the AToC will hope for better conditions, benefitting both rider and viewer.

The 2010 route will hit several major cities, including San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles

This year’s route includes just eight days, with eight stages and no rest days. The race will begin in Nevada City, where Lance Armstrong took his first win of the 2009 season in the Nevada City Classic in June. From there the peloton will ride to Sacramento, the state capital of California. Other notable stages include stage two, which will travel from San Francisco to Santa Cruz along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Stage seven will be a time trial through the streets of Los Angeles, where Dave Zabriskie aka Captain America will look to show off his Stars and Stripes jersey. The final stage will likely be one for the sprinters, and will finish in the Agoura Hills. Missing from this year’s route is a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, and the tour still lacks a climb that can rival the Alps or Pyrenees in Europe.

Although the AToC has grown since its inception in 2006, the race still includes less than ten stages. To some teams, the AToC will provide riders with a race experience that does not include the stress and fatigue of a three week grand tour. Several riders have already comitted to the race, including George Hincapie of BMC, Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream, and the Team Radioshack trio of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Chris Horner. With these five riders alone the race already has a field that will provide with an exciting fight for the podium.

Lance Armstrong on the front for his Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer

Even with this star-studded lineup, the Tour of California will likely not meet the same popularity as it did last year, when the field included Ivan Basso, Andy Shleck, Fabian Cancellara, and several other European stars. Many of the Italian teams will not be sending squads to the race, including Lampre-NGC and Liquigas, as they would choose to race the Giro d’Italia. Some European teams may choose to send a split squad such as Garmin-Slipstream. Dave Zabriskie has already confirmed that he will be at the race, yet other riders such as Bradley Wiggins or Tyler Farrar may seek for victories at the Giro d’Italia. Many European teams will likely race the Giro, simply because it is what they are used to, and it has been a part of their race schedule for many years.

Levi Leipheimer in yellow with the Brothers Shleck on the front

The American based teams will likely race the AToC, while the Europeans will stick with the Giro, and there are simply more European teams. Perhaps the powers will sway, but for now, it seems that the Giro d’Italia will still reign as the race of May.

Omega Pharma-Lotto Looks for Classics in 2010

Gilbert at his Giro di Lombardi Win

Following the departure of Cadel Evans, The Omega Pharma-Lotto (Silence-Lotto) has announced that it will focus on one-day races in the coming season. The team will likely be built around classics specialist Philippe Gilbert, who went on a late season tear, winning the Giro di Lombardi and Paris-Tours among others. In an interview with Sporza the Belgian went as far as to say “With [Cadel] Evans’ departure we no longer have a team for the Tours.” This certainly says something about the support that Cadel Evans received while racing the grand tours under Silence-Lotto. If the departure of one rider results in the total loss of a grand tour team, that probably means that there wasn’t much there before. Although this statement does seem rather generalized, it really is true. Cadel Evans made it to the third step of the podium at the Vuelta with very little team support and a bottle change that cost him a second more than his overall time deficit at the end of the race.

Silence-Lotto will likely drop several rungs in the stage-race peloton next year, but it appears that the team has not cared enough to put together a true team even when they had a GC threat. For now, Phillipe Gilbert will be the star for the early and late months of the season. When the grand tours roll along Silence-Lotto will have to find a new contender.

BMC Builds for 2010

In a somewhat surprising move, Cadel Evans,Cadel Evans giving his victory salute at Worlds recently crowned World Road Champion, has signed with American-based Swiss-backed team BMC. Evans chose to opt out of the final year of his contract with Silence-Lotto, where he was a two-time 2nd place finisher at the Tour de France. Although moving to a somewhat unproven team (BMC has never been invited to a grand tour), Evans had made it clear to the public and media that he was not happy with the support he was receiving at SIlence-Lotto, criticizing their inability to deliver him to Paris in yellow.

Joining Evans at BMC will be U.S. Road Champ George Hincapie, fresh off a stint with Columbia-HTC. The 36 year old will likely search for wins in the spring classics, before serving as a domestique for Evans in the grand tours. Hincapie has never one a spring classic, but has had his eye on Paris-Roubaix for several years since finishing second in 2005.

Italian Alessandro Ballan will also be pursuing the spring classics, coming off a dissapointing season with Italian squad Lampre. The 2008 World Road Champion suffered several losses following a virus that plagued him for most of the season. He and Hincapie wll likely form the foundations of the spring classics teams and the grand tour teams, riding in support of Evans.

BMC appears to be made up of several second place riders, yet only time will tell if they could put a man on the top of the podium in 2010…